The Boston Phoenix November 30 - December 7, 2000


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The outsiders

Two Italian winemakers turn the tables on tradition

by Thor Iverson

For notes on current and recent
releases from Allegrini and Anselmi, click here
When it comes to passion, Italians have few equals. For example, just visit the North End during any World Cup soccer match featuring Italy. And bring your earplugs.

So it's not particularly surprising that Italians bring this same passion to wine. In a country with winemaking traditions so old that recorded history barely reaches back to their beginnings, it came as something of a shock when Allegrini and Anselmi, two of Italy's leading wineries, dramatically turned their backs on this very tradition.

Allegrini is a top producer of Valpolicella, a light trattoria red that some wineries have fattened up for modern palates, and Amarone, a unique and long-lived red that is usually reserved for special occasions. Anselmi is arguably the top producer of Soave, a much-maligned white that is all too often thin and flavorless, but that in the right hands manages to be simultaneously rich, complex, and light on its feet.


Italian wine law is codified in a system known as DOC, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which basically means "name of controlled origin." Like most European appellation systems, it identifies a specific geographical area where a particular wine may be grown; the grapes that may be grown in that region; certain viticultural practices; and sometimes winemaking techniques. By adhering to these rules, a wine may carry a specific geographical designation, like Soave or Valpolicella. What the consumer gets out of this is, simply, predictability: tonight's Valpolicella will taste roughly similar to last month's Valpolicella, and not like a Barolo or a Chianti. A wine not made according to DOC rules is "declassified," and may not use the geographical designation anywhere on the label.

-- TI

Recently, both wineries decided to abandon the designations prescribed by the DOC (the Italian appellation system; see sidebar) for some of their wines, and follow their own visions of quality. The differences in their approaches are significant, but their actions are among the loudest opening shots in a revolution that is going to bring even more chaos and confusion to the already convoluted world of wine.

Allegrini was first. Although the winery still makes a "basic" Valpolicella and a wonderful Amarone, its most talked-about wines in the United States are its two single-vineyard Valpolicellas, Palazzo della Torre and La Grola. These wines are no longer called Valpolicella, and are sold using their vineyard names as a sort of brand identity.

What was the point of contention for Allegrini? There are three required grapes in Valpolicella: corvina, rondinella, and molinara. Many producers believe that corvina is a world-class grape, and are making varietal corvina to demonstrate just that (Allegrini makes one called La Poja); rondinella is considered a decent, if uninspiring, blending grape. But some wineries (including Allegrini) are strongly against the mandated use of molinara, which they consider to be unworthy, and petitioned the authorities to eliminate it from the Valpolicella "recipe." When this didn't happen, Allegrini struck out on its own.

Allegrini also started adding nonstandard grapes to its blends; a little sangiovese (the principal grape of Chianti) here, a little syrah there. These grape varieties are not native to the Valpolicella region.

Not long after, Anselmi followed suit. Anselmi's repudiation of the Soave DOC was based largely on an unwillingness to be associated with a region where the majority of growers blithely employ low-quality practices. Although the quality of Anselmi's wines was skyrocketing, the region as a whole was slipping. Anselmi distributed a decidedly passionate essay in which it decried this lowering of standards, and agonized over leaving an appellation that had defined its wines for decades.

So why are these two cases different, and how do they foretell an imminent conflict in the wine world?

The number of wineries leaving, or being denied, their appellations is growing. Burn in Beaujolais, Thévenet in the Mâcon, Cotat in Sancerre, Gaja in the Piedmont, Valandraud in Bordeaux, this pair in the Veneto . . . quality winemakers are struggling with the limitations of the appellation system. The old rules, often written to please large, industrial producers and quality-blind cooperatives, are increasingly limiting quality rather than defining typicity. This is the exact opposite of what appellations are designed to achieve.

But there's another side to the dissatisfaction. Old World producers keep an eye on the retail and auction markets, where New World producers with no appellation rules get hundreds or thousands of dollars for wines that have no history or tradition, but are merely well funded and well marketed. And some of them wonder how they can have a piece of that lucrative action.

Therefore, experimentation with non-native grape varieties is the first in a series of steps toward the so-called international style, which strikes at the heart of the appellation system by creating wines that taste the same no matter where they're from. It's too early to say whether Allegrini is following that path, but recent releases have definitely drifted toward an oakier, more international style. Anselmi, on the other hand, seems to be blazing its own trail toward higher-quality wine that could, if it so desired, still be called Soave.

Both wineries continue to make very good, often excellent, wines. But in the next few years, as more and more wineries follow their example, we will see where all this passion for quality leads. Will it be toward tasty but boring cookie-cutter wines with fancy labels and high prices? Or will it be toward wines that are the best and purest expressions of their origins, even in the face of laws that restrict that expression?

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

Tasting Notes for Allegrini/Alselmi

Soave is a light-bodied white that rarely rewards aging, and is frequently so innocuous that it can't stand up to food. However, the best producers of Soave (Anselmi, Pieropan, and sometimes Gini) make medium- and full-bodied wines that not only pair deliciously with seafood and white meats of all kinds, but have the capacity to age up to a decade, occasionally more. With time, the mineral components of this wine, so fruity and fat when young, really come to the fore. Recioto versions are sweet and intense.

1999 Anselmi San Vicenzo ($11). Sharp, bright, perfectly undemanding wine with the delicate scent of lemons, but with just enough stuffing to last a year or two.

1998 Anselmi Capitel Croce ($18). Slightly botrytized, lightly sweet, but mostly full and rich with a gritty minerality. Possibly the best Soave I've ever tasted, even if it's not labeled Soave. Has some excellent aging potential, but hard to resist now.

1999 Anselmi Capitel Foscarino ($18). Very lightly sweet, tastes of candied citrus rinds and finishes off light sweet lemon balm. Lovely balance. Drink now or age for a few years.

1997 Anselmi Recioto di Soave I Capitelli ($52). (I Capitelli is the name of the vineyard.) Heavily-botrytized, baked honey and sweet apple, lifted by perfectly balanced acidity. An endlessly long finish. Really, really beautiful wine.

Valpolicella is a much-maligned red that, like Beaujolais in France, is unfairly criticized for its lightness. What this misses is the fact that with food, a light red is frequently a better choice than a big, overextracted fruit bomb. Nevertheless, most Valpolicella for the export market is now a bigger, more "serious" wine. But while this wine is changing, it's still heavy enough to be versatile with red meats, but light enough to pair with all but the lightest fish dishes. Even better, this wine is just killer with most vegetables, something that cannot be said about heavier reds. Remember that not all Allegrini's "Valpolicellas" are labeled that way anymore.

1998 Allegrini Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($10). Strawberries and cherries, a little tannic edge, but very much a worthwhile updating of the trattoria classic. Just wonderful with antipasti.

1997 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre ($17). Light earthy at the beginning, this fills and expands in the mouth, all cherries and game (and reminiscent of Chianti in this regard). By the end of the long finish, this wine is very full-bodied.

1997 Allegrini La Grola ($20). Solid and smoky nose, redolent of herbs and black cherries. Smooths and softens on the palate, with a beautiful essence of rosemary. Delicious stuff.

Amarone is a thick, dense red wine that some people prefer young, others prefer with a lot of age, but that all agree goes only with the most majestic of meats and cheeses, especially parmigiano reggiano. The newer vintages listed below are available but hard to find (ask your favorite Italian wine retailer), but older vintages are likely to appear only on restaurant lists. All older vintages, including '93, are already throwing significant sediment; decant before drinking.

1995 Allegrini Amarone Classico ($55). Deep and thyme-infused, with an earthy character and firm impressions of figs, licorice and earth. This should age for decades.

1995 Allegrini Amarone Classico. (From a different tasting, and varying enough from the previous note that it's worth comparing.) Bitter licorice and bark flavors, a little pruney, with a sharp coriander tang on the finish.

1993 Allegrini Amarone Classico. Chocolate-covered blackberries, with a definite oak-derived spiciness. Wonderfully balanced.

1991 Allegrini Amarone Classico. Balanced, but a touch flat and rather overcome with a mint cocoa flavor. There's some sage here as well. Perhaps its closed right now, but my instinct says to drink this one sooner rather than later.

1990 Allegrini Amarone Classico. The sediment in this bottle is oddly stringy. No, I don't know what that means. Anyway, the nose of this one is a bit shy, and other than a slightly bitter butterscotch flavor there's not much going on in this wine. Drink up.

1988 Allegrini Amarone Classico. Huge, explosive aromas of blackberries and black cherries. Rich and opulent, but with perfect balance. This one will continue to age for a long time, but will be more about spice and roasted fruit at that point, so decide which wine you'd prefer when deciding whether or not to age it.

1985 Allegrini Amarone Classico. Browning with age, and nearly mature. Extremely herbal, but in an earthy (rather than vegetal) way, with creamy citrus and blackberry flavors. Very nice, but drink soon.

Recioto is the "dessert" version of Amarone, though it must be said that these wines are hardly ever actually sweet. What they are is incredibly intense and nearly always full of overripe fruit flavors. A good analogy: if Amarone was a grape, recioto would be a raisin. Sip it with salty cheese from Italy (parmigiano, asiago, pecorino) drizzled with the finest balsamic vinegar you can afford.

1997 Giovanni Allegrini Recioto di Amarone Classico ($100). Recioto is an acquired taste, and some highly-regarded examples are just not to mine. This is one. Smells like pine sap, or maybe furniture polish. It tastes better than it smells - red cherries, bitter herbs - and there's a very light sweetness to the fruit. This probably just needs to age.

As mentioned in the above column, a number of producers are experimenting with 100% corvina wines. Usually, these wines will carry the Veronese IGT appellation, which is also the "declassified" appellation for Allegrini's former Valpolicella offerings.

1996 Allegrini "La Poja" ($55). Bell peppers and ripe black cherries, but this wine is all about structure rather than fruit. As such, there's no point in even sampling it for another ten years.

1995 Allegrini "La Poja" ($55). Extremely herbal, with a strong undercurrent of bacon fat, but structure dominates everything here. Nevertheless, I think this one is going to be drinkable a few years earlier than the '96, because while neither is exactly a fruit bomb right now, the '95 already seems more approachable.

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